Chapter # 23 Sola frowned as she glanced at her chrono for the third time. “It’s been almost two hours, I believe we’ve been stood up.” Ben nodded pushing to his feet. “The Gungans have always been shy in nature. I just thought that a meeting with Padme Naberrie’s sister would be enough enticement to drag them out in the open.” Sola stood. “Evidently not. I’m hungry, let’s get some lunch.” She threaded her arm through Ben’s and headed towards the food district.” Ben placed his hand on top of hers noticing the softness. “Feel like Chandrila?” “Too spicy. How about a salad?” Ben smiled. “I know just the place.” He led the way to an intimate café that featured exotic salads and soups. After ordering, Ben leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. “What?” “Perhaps we are going about this the wrong way.” The waiter arrived with their iced-rose tea and placed them on the table. As he left, Sola leaned in. “What are you thinking?” Ben sipped from his glass and swallowed. “Perhaps it’s not the Gungans we should be trying to ally with.” Sola drank from her own glass. “Then who?” “It just might be time to make contact with the Rebel Alliance.” Sola’s eyes widened. She looked around the empty tables near them and moved her chair closer to Ben. “Do you…do you think that’s wise?” “I do. My contacts on Tatooine have mentioned that the rebels have become very organized and that they continue to infiltrate key areas of the Empire.” “It just sounds so risky, Ben.” “Perhaps.” He folded his hands on the table top. “But, I believe it is the way to go.” The waiter arrived with two large salad bowls and a basket of thick, crusty bread. Ben bit into a slice and chewed. “There’s an individual in the rebellion who serves as the head of surveillance. He often does his own scouting. He’s the one I need to meet with to determine how we might work together against the Empire.” Sola frowned as she cut her salad into smaller pieces. “It’s that easy, eh? Just meet up with this man and tell him we’re ready to join forces with a terrorist organization.” He winced. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy. I’m just saying that we need help and they are likely to be interested in our unique perspective.” “What’s this man’s name?” Ben looked about the room. “Airen Cracken.” He spooned two olives onto his bread plate, then bit into a second piece of bread. Sola raised a brow. “Saving those for a rainy day?” “Hmm?” “Your olives, Ben.” Ben wrinkled his nose. “Never liked the taste.” She grinned and stabbed them with her fork. “Your loss.” Sola brought her fork to her lips and slipped the olives into mouth. Ben froze, mesmerized by the sight. He felt a slight warming on his face and then looked over towards the bar. “Stars...” “What?” She looked over just in time to see Moff Daquan approaching. He was an intimidating man. Tall with an economy of movement that bespoke of military training. Some compared him to Moff Tarkin, but Ben thought there was something more calculating in his manner. He had all the signs of a dangerous individual. “Representative Naberrie.” The Moff bowed over Sola’s hand. “And Mr. Naberrie, what a pleasure to finally have the opportunity to meet you.” Ben stood and took the Moff’s extended hand. “The pleasure is all mine, sir.” He was surprised at the lack of emotion emanating from the man. Strange. Daquan removed his hand and caught both behind his back. “I hear your son has been showing Abriana around the city. I can’t tell you how much his generosity means to her…and me.” “Yes,” replied Ben. “He’s quite the ambassador for Naboo.” Daquan cocked his head and smiled. “Well, it’s very kind of him. Most young men have little time for such things. Luke does, indeed, seem to be an outstanding individual.” Ben nodded. “Of course it doesn’t hurt that the subject of Luke’s interest is so beautiful.” Sola coughed into her napkin. Daquan’s eyes glittered. “Naboo is a beautiful planet, is it not?” “The loveliest.” Both men stood eyeing each other. Finally, Daquan broke eye contact and nodded to Sola. “Well, enjoy your luncheon.” He nodded at Ben and then returned to the bar. Ben sat and replaced his napkin in his lap. “Testing the waters?” “No doubt.” Sola took a bit of etbain lettuce and chewed. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we received an invitation to dinner soon.” “And I suppose we’ll have to attend?” Sola grimaced and placed her fork near her bowl. “Well, I wouldn’t go bringing Airen Cracken to the party, but yes, we’ll probably have to go.” Ben glanced back towards the bar and the group of Imperials with Daquan. He couldn’t help but notice there were also a few from the Naboo Council with them and they seemed to be having a delightful time. “They must’ve been in a private room earlier,” said Ben. Sola looked up from her salad and then reached across the table to touch Ben’s forearm. “I think you are right. We can’t do this on our own. How soon can you contact Cracken?” Ben watched the Moff escort the council members from the café. “Not soon enough.” xxxxx Mara had always been good at sneaking around. Well, that’s what Luke called it. She had often driven him mad with her stealthy presence when he had slipped off to see his friends on Tatooine and Naboo. He never understood her reasons for doing so, but from even a very early age, Mara had found Luke Skywalker quite fascinating. And, like Luke said, she was good at it. Very good. She lifted her head from her datapad as Luke pulled into the lake house’s garage. Perched high on a branch of a Talipa tree, she watched him exit the building whistling some out-of-tune melody with a besotted grin on his face. Stupa koochoo. This Imperial wermo had her claws into him deep and Mara was certain that her motives were far from innocent. What is it with men and their lack of brain usage when it comes to a pretty face? Mara shut down the datapad and tucked it into her shoulder pack. Even Uncle Ben seemed blind to Abrianna’s strategy with Luke. Well, she’d just have to gather proof, that’s all. She’d done surveillance before and now had the proper recording equipment. She’d make them both see how the Imperial chik was using Luke. She slid down the trunk of the tree and landed softly onto the ground. He’d give up this ridiculous relationship as soon as he saw the girl’s true designs. Mara frowned as she paused at the front door and brushed some leaves from her pants. Her only concern was his reaction to the truth. What was it that Popi often said about killing the messenger? Mara snorted and opened the door. Not Luke. Surely he would appreciate Mara’s efforts. Might even be grateful for exposing the little wermo. She smiled and slipped quietly into the house. ...to be continued.